|It was a story like something out of a fairy tale. Hardly anyone could have imagined it: It happened at the 148th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs racetrack/USA, because it was won by a horse as an 80:1 outsider, which had only entered the field as a replacement horse. The reaction after the 3 million dollar highlight was accordingly. It`s hard to get 150,000 people to go from a loud roar to a library-like silence. But for a few who might play blackjack and like the number 21, or especially those involved with a heretofore unknown stallion named Rich Strike, there was largely stunned silence after the Kentucky Derby, which had a full house again after two years of restrictions.
Rich Strike, who was lucky to be eligible for the race at all after being on the ineligible list following the draw, pulled off the second biggest surprise in the history of the race when he rallied from 18th with an electrifying final sprint past the favoured Epicenter and the highly touted Zandon.
The 80-1 surprise win in front of 147,294 spectators made trainer Eric Reed, who has run his business since 1985 and has never had a Derby starter, a star. So did owner Rick Dawson, an Oklahoma businessman who almost gave up the sport before joining forces with Reed; and jockey Sonny Leon, a Venezuelan native who rides regularly in Ohio and also competed in the Derby for the first time. It was reminiscent of Mine That Bird flying in from nowhere in 2009, but that horse had Derby regular Calvin Borel aboard.
In seven starts, Rich Strike had won just once, in a Maiden claimer last September at Churchill Downs, where Reed and Dawson bought him from trainer Joe Sharp for $30,000. Since then, Rich Strike had lost five in a row, including four straight stakes races. In December, he finished fifth in the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds, where he was 14 lengths behind Epicenter. He then made three straight starts on the all-weather track at Turfway Park, finishing third most recently behind Derby outsiders Tiz the Bomb and Tawny Port.
When 22 horses were entered for the Derby on the Monday before the race, Rich Strike was 21st. He was not added to the list until the morning before the race, when trainer D. Wayne Lukas decided to withdraw Ethereal Road. If that hadn`t happened, Rich Strike wouldn`t have run in the Derby. He did run, and how. Although Rich Strike started from the outside in the 20-strong field, he got going magnificently. He was aided by tremendous speed - including the fastest opening quarter in the history of the race - which made him perfect for a speed horse. Moments into the race, the scoreboard lit up like a Christmas tree. Rich Strike paid $163.60 (quoted at $2 in the U.S.) to win, topped only by the $184.90 Donerail paid in 1913.
"I fell over when they finished," Reed said. "That`s the reason everybody does it." Reed, 57, had to rebuild his business after a tragic barn fire in December 2016 at the Mercury Equine Center in Lexington that killed 23 of his horses. Dawson has been one of his staunchest supporters over the years.
"He`s the reason I`m in this business," Dawson said. "I was ready to get out. I was disillusioned." Dawson said after being introduced to Reed by a mutual friend, he decided, "I like this guy. I`m going to give it another shot." This is the most incredible day ever," Dawson said. Reed, who has trained 1,444 winners, previously had one graded-stakes winner, one more than Leon, 32, who has won 769 races in this country since arriving from Venezuela in 2015. He rides regularly at Mahoning Valley and Belterra Park. On the Friday before the big event, Leon prepared for his big Derby day by riding five horses at Belterra, none of which won. Rich Strike was his only horse on Derby Day.
Leon finished 11th among riders in North America last year with 226 wins, while Joel Rosario, who rode Epicenter, finished 10th with 228 wins. Rosario`s horses earned $32,956,215 last year, and he won the Eclipse Award. Leon`s horses earned $3,736,558. Now Leon beat Rosario and 18 other riders with a ride that looked like it had been in the Derby all his life. And he made history. Stories that racing needs.
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